"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, February 29, 2020

One Man's Hero (Orion, 1999)

The San Patricios


Rather intrigued by the part that the St Patrick’s Battalion and its leader John Riley played in James Carlos Blake’s novel In the Rogue Blood, reviewed the other day (click he link for that) and by Richard’s comment on it, I decided to dig a bit deeper. You, dear e-readers, might find it interesting to know a little more.

Richard said, “I recall an episode of Bonanza which mentions this, but generally it hasn't gotten much attention from movies or television; despite being an interesting and controversial subject.”

The Bonanza episode was Danger Road (Season 11, Episode 15, screened January 11, 1970). Little Joe meets up with "Gunny O'Riley" (Robert Lansing), a freighter who is on his way north to Canada with his loving wife Serafina (Anna Navarro). O'Riley has a D branded on his cheek, covered now by a beard. Gunny is what gunnery sergeants are called. Bad guy Cambeau (William Sylvester) has a freighting monopoly in those parts, and he and his nasty sidekick Willard (Jay Jones) don't want O'Riley around as competition. The Cartwrights have timber to haul but won't pay Cambeau's exorbitant rates.

Lansing was Riley in Bonanza

Now Ben recognizes Gunny and is furious. It seems Ben commanded men who were killed by Riley's San Patricios at Churubusco. Gunny says he spent fifteen years in the American army (a slight exaggeration, that; it was really about six months) and got nothing for it. Ben says Gunny should have stayed loyal because was not an Irish immigrant, but born under the Stars and Bars (that's wrong too, and anyway there were no Stars and Bars then). But eventually Ben relents and Gunny succeeds in the difficult task of hauling three huge timber beams (ponderosa pine, presumably) for the Cartwrights. Now Gunny, with Ben's help, takes on Cambeau in a race to win a freight contract. Despite foul play by the wicked Willard (don't worry, Little Joe gets him), the goodies win. Gunny does the decent thing. He and Ben part if not as friends at least with mutual respect, and it's off to Canada - whence, in a way (see below) he came.

The teleplay of Danger Road was by Milton S Gelman, and he also wrote the screenplay of a feature film which told the story of Riley (or O'Riley) and his adventures in Mexico.

This picture was the last of Orion, before it was taken over by MGM, and was nearly buried as a TV movie but star Tom Berenger campaigned for it, and it got a limited theatrical release in 1999, so it counts as a feature. It was called One Man’s Hero, inviting us to finish the phrase with …is another man’s – and here you fill in the blank with coward, traitor, what you will. And that’s fair enough because while many, especially in Ireland and Mexico, regard John Riley as a real hero, others, especially in the US, think of him as a base deserter who fought against his own kind.

Interesting title change

There are biographies of Riley, also known as John Patrick O'Riley and O’Reilly, for example by Christopher Minster and one by Tim O’Brien, though the hard historical facts for much of his life are thin on the ground. We don’t even know for sure when and where he was born and when or where he died.

Bust of Riley but we don't know he looked like that

Riley (let’s call him that) was probably but not certainly born in Clifden, County Galway, Ireland in 1817 or 1818. He was more likely named Seán Ó Raghailligh, which would have been ‘Englished’ into John Riley. He seems to have served with the British Army in Canada, perhaps in 1843, deserting possibly (we do not know) and joining the US Army in Michigan in September 1845. He served in Company K of the 5th US Infantry regiment, which was moved to the Rio Grande as war with Mexico seemed likely, but he deserted in early 1846.

He left no autobiography or letters, and we don’t know precisely why he changed sides, but we can make some good guesses. As an Irishman he was considered a second-class citizen and frequently insulted as such. Worse, he was mistrusted as a Papist. In the movie various prejudiced officers (especially a captain played by Stephen Tobolowsky, whom you may remember as Ned from Groundhog Day) accuse him of having a stronger allegiance to Rome than to the Stars and Stripes. It is suggested that he could not progress in the ranks because of this, despite being an experienced and capable soldier, and that he came to resent it. The movie even has him as a sergeant, denied deserved promotion to captain by vicious and petty local officers. It is also suggested (especially in the movie and in Blake’s novel) that the Irish came in for more of their fair share of ultra-harsh military punishments for the slightest misdemeanors. That was undoubtedly the case. Certainly Irish expatriâtes, sometimes known as wild geese, had a long tradition of serving in military forces of Catholic countries.

In the film Riley nobly saves some fellow troopers from an unjust flogging and crosses over into Mexico with them. Once he’s got them over the border he himself wants to return and face the music, but his men persuade him that they need him to lead them, and so he continues. Believe that if you will.

He falls in with a band of bandits led by the charismatic Cortina, played by Antonio Banderas’s nemesis in Desperado, Joaquim de Almaeida. This Cortina is more of a Pancho Villa-style revolutionary than just a plain robber. Now, I don’t know if this is supposed to be Juan Cortina, the Red Robber of the Rio Grande, the famous caudillo and regional leader who effectively controlled the Mexican state of Tamaulipas as governor and fought the American Texans in the late 1850s and early 1860s. He would only have been 22 in 1846, but I guess it could have been him. In the movie he is recruited into the regular Mexican army for the duration of the Mexican-American War. He is the arch-rival of Riley because you see, Riley was wounded and nursed back to health by Cortina’s woman, Marta (beautiful Daniela Romo), and as we know, patients always have to fall in love with their nurses. It was obligatory. So Cortina is jealous.

The Cortina

All this sounds very much like Hollywood and rather little like the historical fact. But I guess that’s par for the course.

He falls for Cortina's woman Marta

Anyway, the real Riley, with a companion named Patrick Dalton (who does not appear in the movie) joined the Mexican army and formed a foreign legion which they baptized the St Patrick’s Battalion and which the Mexicans called the Batallón de San Patricio. Its members were promised citizenship, money, 320 acres (1.3 sq km) of land each, promotion on merit, and above all, freedom to follow their Catholic faith and respect for doing so. It would have been a tempting offer. None of this had been accorded to them in the States. It appears that the battalion wasn’t exclusively Irish: there were Germans and Poles and other nationalities, and even it is suggested, some escaped slaves. Slavery was illegal in Mexico, which was in so many ways a more enlightened country at that time, though the scornful Yanquis certainly did not think so.

Of course it's Marta who makes the famous green flag. No more Stars and Stripes for Riley.

Maybe it looked like this

This was before war broke out in the spring of 1846. When hostilities commenced, Lt. Riley as he now was had experience as an artilleryman which he put to very good use on the Mexican behalf. General Zachary Taylor (colorfully played by the excellent James Gammon in the movie) crossed the Rio Grande and built a stronghold he named Fort Texas (later renamed Fort Brown after one of the men killed there) across from Matamoros. Mexican artillery bombarded it for 160 hours. Taylor led a relief force but Mexican General Arista intercepted it and fighting broke out. All this was before the official declaration of war (the US Congress approved the American declaration of war on May 13; Mexico declared war on July 7).

Gammon as Zach Taylor the best thing about the movie

The Saint Patrick's Battalion first fought as a recognized Mexican unit in the Battle of Monterrey on September 21, repelling two or three American attacks. The San Patricios’ tenacity, however, did not affect the Mexican commanders' decision to capitulate and abandon the position. The battalion grew in number, by some estimates reaching an enlistment of over 700 men.

At the Battle of Buena Vista (known as the battle of Angostura in Mexico) in Coahuila on February 23, the San Patricios once again engaged US forces. They were assigned the three heaviest—18 and 24 pound—cannons the Mexican army possessed, and during the battle they captured two more guns, which they used on the enemy. But once again the Mexican forces retreated in disorderly fashion. The San Patricios lost about a third of their men but General Francisco Mejia described them as "worthy of the most consummate praise because the men fought with daring bravery."

Buena Vista

Once the rather odious Santa Anna had returned from Cuba and taken over, the San Patricios were ordered to muster a larger infantry battalion and Riley was given command of one of the companies. The Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847) was the bloodiest of the war. One San Patricio quotes Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”  Riley quotes Marcus Aurelius. They seem an educated lot. Poor command and lack of ammunition contributed to another Mexican defeat. Blake suggests that the San Patricios only had roundshot (cannonballs) while the opposing forces used explosive shells, though in the movie both sides are using shells. The Mexicans ran up the white flag but Patrick Dalton of the San Patricios tore it down, prompting General Pedro Anaya to order his men to fight on, with their bare hands if necessary. American Private Ballentine reported that when the Mexicans attempted to raise the white flag twice more, members of the San Patricios shot and killed them. But it only delayed the inevitable.


General Anaya stated in his battle report that 35 San Patricios were killed, 85 taken prisoner (including a wounded John Riley) while about 85 escaped with retreating Mexican forces. Those captured were treated as traitors and seventy-two men were immediately charged with desertion. Two separate courts martial were held but at neither of these trials were the men represented by lawyers, nor were transcripts made of the proceedings. Thirteen from one trial and eighteen from another were sentenced to hang, in violation of the Articles of War then in force.

Mass hanging

Those soldiers who had left military service before the official declaration of war on Mexico (Riley among them) were sentenced to "receive 50 lashes on their bare backs, to be branded with the letter 'D' for deserter, and to wear iron yokes around their necks for the duration of the war”.


In the movie General Winfield Scott, now in command, takes delight in the fate of the San Patricios and it is he who orders that they not be hanged until they see the Mexican flag replaced by the American one in a siege then going on. However, this is inaccurate. If anything, Scott seems to have been a moderating force who sought to mitigate the punishments.

Rather thinner then

As for Riley, we do not know for certain what his fate was. The movie has him reunited with the belle Marta and going off to a life of married bliss as a campesino, the two of them and a donkey like Joseph and Mary. This is improbable. For a long time it was thought he had died penniless in Veracruz in 1850 after a bout of drunkenness, but more recent research has thrown great doubt on this. For one thing he was a teetotaler, and for another he had only recently mustered out of the Mexican army with a very substantial payment. But how, where and when he actually died we do not know.


At any rate, it’s a great story. The movie is a bit lame, to be honest, and Berenger’s Riley is a rather goody-goody softy, unlike James Carlos Blake’s; Blake’s Riley is a huge, charismatic figure with as many faults as qualities, and you believe him as a man who achieved such remarkable things. Furthermore, there's much cruelty to horses in the film; the American Humane Association branded it as "unacceptable". It was directed by the producer, Lance Hool, but it drags at over two hours and needed better editing.

Writer Gelman and director/producer Hool

The film critic of The Tucson Weekly said, “Low-budget leading man Tom Berenger's acting is beyond wooden - it's petrified” and added, “a film critic should get time-and-a-half for watching this malarkey”. (Editor's note: No).

There are also a couple of interesting documentaries on Riley and the San Patricios, as well as several novels, not only Blake's. So plenty of material if you want to dig deeper into the story.

But so long for now.


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake

Black and bleak

In the Rogue Blood is a novel of the 1840s West. The story is of two brothers, John and Edward Little, who grow up in Florida with “a whore mother and a homicidal father”, and it climaxes during General Winfield Scott’s 1847 campaign against the Mexicans, and in particular his attack on Mexico City, in which by a combination of curious circumstance the brothers find themselves fighting on opposite sides.

Blake (born 1947) had already published two ‘Western’ novels, The Pistoleer (1995), which tells of John Wesley Hardin, and The Friends of Pancho Villa (1996), which concentrates on the life of Villa’s private executioner Rodolfo Fierro. In the Rogue Blood came out in 1997.

The brothers combine in the killing of their abusive father and are ever after haunted by it. They leave Florida to make their own way in Texas and of course many adventures happen along the way, allowing Blake to give us a picture of the 1840s south. They fetch up in New Orleans but are dramatically separated there. They will only be reunited at the very end of the book, and much of the narrative deals alternately with the separate progress of John and Edward, or Ward as he is known.

Both brothers harbor lustful thoughts for their sister, and Blake seems to have a morbid fascination with incest (see his 2000 novel about Bloody Bill Anderson, Wildwood Boys). The grisly fate of this girl, sold into prostitution, is one of the bleaker aspects of an already bleak book. In some ways we might be reminded of The Searchers, with the brothers hunting their abducted sister, but In the Rogue Blood is very far indeed from Alan Le May or John Ford. To film it would need Peckinpah and Brian de Plasma at the very least. And even they would run out of gore.

For the bleakness is mixed with savagery, not only in the Mexican war. Casual lynchings, murders and rapes pepper the narrative. A Kirkus review cataloged the violence this way: "People are shot, clubbed, knifed, eviscerated, castrated, decapitated, impaled, flayed alive, hanged, scalped, dismembered, blown up, and immolated." The gruesome violence, the seemingly predestined disaster and the noir tone combine to make the novel very far from light reading.

But Blake writes very well. His tone is literary and he attempts a vaguely Victorian prose style but without losing ‘Western’ power. Though Blake certainly has his own ‘voice’, we are reminded slightly of Larry McMurtry, or even, at times, almost of Cormac McCarthy.

Speaking of Cormac McCarthy, a key part of the story comes when Ward joins a band of scalphunters who murder Apaches, including women and children, for the bounty that the Mexican government offered on their scalps. McCarthy's Blood Meridian came out in 1985 and you feel that Blake must have been influenced by it. Blake even has an ‘intellectual’ semi-priest in the loathsome band of scalpers who philosophizes to the others.

The Austin Chronicle reviewer Jesse Sublett quotes Blake on his background and it’s perhaps worth inserting here: 

"I am the fourth generation of men in my family to be born in Mexico, all of us descendants of an American who himself was sired by an English pirate," Blake explains in his introduction to Borderlands, his recent collection of short fiction. Blake's childhood and family heritage is rife with swashbuckling and the crosscurrents and conflict of mixed blood and clashing cultures of the borderlands where he grew up. No wonder he writes such wild, adventurous literature. The pirate was shot by a firing squad in Veracruz. The pirate's grandson was a patrón who was knifed to death on the church steps by a disgruntled employee. Blake himself is a product of the Texas/Mexico borderlands and the swamps of south Florida, where he earned money in high school catching and selling poisonous snakes. "The big benefit of my itinerant boyhood -- in Mexico, Texas, the Southland -- was the variety of voices it gave me," says Blake. "What my books have in common so far is that they're all set in the past, between the mid-19th-century and the era of Prohibition. It's an exciting historical span, full of its own wild energy."

There have been plenty of American coming-of-age novels, but few as black and bleak as this one. Mr. Sublett called it “quite likely the most violent book in American literature”.



Monday, February 24, 2020

Comes a Horseman (UA, 1978)

Too long and dreary

Continuing with our season of iffy 70s Westerns, this one, with a faux-poetic title, was certainly one of the weaker attempts. It was directed by Alan J Pakula, a popular and successful filmmaker of the time who directed, produced and/or wrote a series of hit movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Klute, All the President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice, among others. Westernwise, he only has one other credit: he produced The Stalking Moon in 1968, a Gregory Peck oater that I rather like. A good thing too, because if his Western record were to be judged only on the basis of Comes a Horseman, it would be verging on the dismal.
Alan Pakula

The story came from an original script, Comes a Horseman Wild and Free by Dennis Lynton Clark, who at the start of the decade had worked on two Richard Harris Westerns, also pretty weak, A Man Called Horse and Man in the Wilderness.

Pakula and Clark put together a contemporary Western (it’s set in the 1940s) which contains many of the tropes of the genre (stampede, bushwhack, saloon brawl, last-reel shoot-out, etc.) but which still manages to commit that cardinal sin for a Western – it’s boring.

Variety said the film was "so lethargic not even Jane Fonda, James Caan and Jason Robards can bring excitement to this artificially dramatic story of a stubborn rancher who won't surrender to the local land baron." That’s true.

Robards in particular was a fine actor who from a Western point of view will probably be chiefly remembered for his Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West – unfortunately, really, because he did much better oaters than that. I liked him as gambler Drummond in A Big Hand for the Little Lady and I thought he was a very good Doc Holliday in Hour of the Gun. He was also fine for Sam Peckinpah as Cable Hogue. In Comes a Horseman he plays JW (not JR) Ewing, the clichéd ruthless rancher who wants the whole valley, in the way that ruthless ranchers are wont to do. But the script of Comes a Horseman is such that even Robards can’t communicate what really makes his character tick.

Even Robards can't make a go of it

Jane Fonda, as Ella, the rancher under threat from such land-grabbing malevolence, I am less fond of as a Western actor, though she only did three. She was in another contemporary one, The Electric Horseman, also a mixed bag, as well as being famous as Cat Ballou.

As for James Caan, he always seemed to me too urban, somehow, and too 1970s to be good in Westerns. He did five (depending on your definition of Western), most famously as Mississippi in El Dorado, but nothing much else of note. He plays Frank, the young cowpoke at the center of the action. Nursed back to health by Ella after being shot, he unites with her against the depredations of Ewing, and despite her initial hostility (“Soon as yer fit yer gonna be movin’ on”) they become lovers. But Caan’s Frank seems to be, well, without personality.

Fonda and Caan - big stars but unsuited

Jim Davis and James Keach also have small parts.

The best acting comes from Richard Farnsworth as the elderly cowhand Dodger. Farnsworth was a stuntman who, after more than 30 years in the business moved into acting and became an acclaimed and respected character actor. He participated, in one role or another, in a remarkable 77 feature Westerns and also a huge number of TV shows, from Wells Fargo in 1937 to The Grey Fox in 1982. Especially touching, I thought, was the way that, badly injured, he used a chair to mount up because he wished to die out in the wilds, a case, perhaps, of twisting the old cowboy song into Bury me please on the lone prairie.

The excellent Richard Farnsworth

The movie is way too long at a whisker under two hours and the pacing is such that it often drags, despite the occasional flurry of ‘Western’ action.

It’s quite attractive from a visual point of view, with cinematography by Gordon Willis, who also shot Bad Company, of pretty Arizona locations, though Brian Garfield said, “the camera is invariably too far from the action or too close to it.” I didn't really notice this, I must admit.

Garfield also said that the picture is “both pedestrian and lugubriously overblown”, and added that “self-consciousness colors every frame.” I think he hit the nail on the head there. It’s as if the makers self-consciously set out to make a good-looking Western with all the ‘classic’ Western action in it but forgot the true spirit of a Western along the way.

Contemporary Western

"The theme of this film is very, very American," said Pakula himself. Maybe, but Charles Champlin of The Los Angeles Times wrote that the film "is not about the plot as such but about the way of life which the plot interrupts.” OK. But he added, “The care and authenticity with which that way of life is recorded helps Comes a Horseman overcome some real problems, notably a pace that is all too reverentially slow and a totally inadequate delineation of the Robards character."

Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "Pakula and Clark may believe they revere Westerns, but their form of respectful imitation is lifeless, strictly token respect for the dead. By the time Comes a Horseman wheezes to an anti-climactic fadeout, Robards' depradations [sic] have begun to resemble Gothic camp."
The movie is, as Garfield says, “a bore.”


Friday, February 21, 2020

Leo Gordon

The arch-heavy

 All links in this post are internal, i.e. they take you to this blog's reviews.

We all love the Western heavy. If you were casting a movie in the 1950s and wanted a smarmy town boss you’d probably go for Lyle Bettger, or perhaps from a slightly earlier period Victor Jory; if a rascally judge, Edgar Buchanan was your man; crooked sheriff, Ray Teal, probably; ruthless rancher, I’d go for Emile Meyer; wall-eyed baddie, Jack Elam without a doubt; snarling hired gun, Robert J Wilke or Neville Brand; henchman, Lee Van Cleef; villain with hyena laugh, Dan Duryea. We all have our favorites and doubtless you, dear e-reader, will add to the list.

But if you needed pure thuggishness, serious and fearsome menace, and imposing physical presence, then there was really only one choice. It had to be Leo Gordon.

I’ve always been a Leo fan and thought it was time for a Leorama, a retrospective look at his Western career.

Leo’s Westerns

Mr. Gordon did huge numbers of TV Westerns. IMDb lists 99 episodes of 49 different series. But it’s on the big-screen that he made most impact. For more than forty years, from three pictures in 1953 to a cameo in Maverick in 1994, he appeared in 32 feature oaters, almost invariably as the bad guy.

Time and again he lost out to the star of the movie in a fist fight. Those who knew Leo would have considered this improbable. He was 6' 2" (1.88 m) and broad-shouldered, and tough as all get-out. He could have whupped most of the actors with one hand tied behind his back. But the bad guy has to lose. Don Siegel, who directed Leo as Crazy Mike Carnie in (the non-Western) Riot in Cell Block 11, said, “Leo Gordon was the scariest man I have ever met." In his youth the actor had served time in San Quentin for armed robbery, and he was entirely convincing as tough-guy.

Leo the man

Yet he was apparently the nicest man in real life. The Wikipedia entry on him says, “In contrast to his screen persona Gordon was a quiet, thoughtful and intelligent man who generally avoided the Hollywood spotlight.” He read widely (it is said he read practically every book in the San Quentin library) and he became a writer. He wrote or co-wrote several novels, including the historical Western Powderkeg (which I have ordered and hope soon to be reviewing), the screenplays of many movies, including the Westerns Black Patch, Escort West and The Bounty Killer, and the scripts for many TV shows too.

Leo said, “When Charles Marquis Warren was directing the pilot for Gunsmoke I told him I had an idea for an episode. ‘Don’t tell me, write it,’ he answered. I went home and the next thing I knew I had 110 pages. I showed it to my agent. Next thing I know, George Montgomery wanted to buy it. That was Black Patch. Gene Corman negotiated the deal. That’s how I came into contact with him and Roger Corman. In writing, conflict is the thing. Take a normal person and put him in an abnormal situation and you got a story. Take an abnormal person and put him in a normal situation and you’ve got a story. Writing is more rewarding than acting, but look at my face. Nobody believes I’m a writer. I should be 5' 8", 142 pounds, wear patches on my elbows and horn-rimmed glasses and smoke a pipe. That’s a writer. (Laughs)”

He was a loving husband who wed the actress Lynn Cartwright (née Doralyn E Cartwright) in 1950 and remained married to her for fifty years, until his death in 2000.

Leo was a great guy.

His early life

Leo Vincent Gordon was born in Brooklyn in 1922. His family was far from prosperous. Leo left school in the eighth grade and went to work in construction and demolition, then joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal agency, which carried out various public works projects. In 1941 he enlisted in the US Army but left after two years with an “undesirable discharge”. In southern California he and an accomplice tried to rob a bar and its patrons with a pistol. He was shot in the stomach by one of the officers making the arrest. Convicted of armed robbery, he served five years in San Quentin Prison.


Undesirable discharge or not, he was able to profit from the GI Bill and on release went to acting school (Jason Robards was one of his instructors for a time) and it was there he met his wife Lynn. They had one child, a daughter named Tara – I hope she may read this tribute to her dad.

He started his acting career, as Leo V Gordon, on the stage and was discovered by a Hollywood agent in a Los Angeles production of Darkness at Noon starring Edward G Robinson (Leo replaced Jack Palance).

Leo said, “I came back to New York and three months later I got another call. They asked if I could ride a horse. I said, ‘If I can’t ride, I’ll carry it.’ I went out and rented a horse in Central Park. I couldn’t walk for two days. Anyway, they put me on a horse and I was there for 35 years. But I have a good foundation for a western background. I was born in the same town as Billy the Kid…Brooklyn.”

Western debut

His Western debut was in Warners’ Hondo, with John Wayne, in 1953, in which, billed seventh, he played the no-good husband of Geraldine Page who deserts her, and whom Duke is finally obliged to shoot. Leo said, “In the scene where he kills me down by the stream, I reach for my gun and he shoots me. I buckled up and pitched forward. Wayne hollered, ‘Cut! Cut!’, even though John Farrow was directing. Wayne says to me, ‘What was that? When you get hit in the gut with a slug you go flying backwards’. I pulled up my shirt to show him where I'd really been shot in the gut. ‘Yeah? I got hit point blank and I went forward’.

With Duke in Hondo

In September of that year he was uncredited as a minor heavy in City of Bad Men, a Fox picture with Dale Robertson, but in October he was very good as Tom ‘Jess’ Burgess, a stagecoach holdup man who swears vengeance on his gang leader Phil Carey, in Gun Fury, a Rock Hudson picture which Raoul Walsh directed for Columbia. By the end of the story he was almost a goody, which was a bit of a shock, but don’t worry, it would soon be back to out-and-out bad guy. These pictures a very good start in our noble genre.

He had a deep, menacing voice, and an icy stare with those cold blue eyes, all the better in a color picture.

Those steely blue eyes - almost manic

The small screen

He first appeared in a TV Western as outlaw Bill Doolin on a Stories of the Century episode in 1954 (when naturally railroad detective Matt Clark captured him). He was then in three episodes of Rin Tin Tin and three of Frontier.

He was the professional killer Prine in an episode of Gunsmoke that was originally designed as a kind of pilot, but because changes were later made on the series, such as the marshal's office and Long Branch Saloon looking markedly different, and also the relationship between Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty being subtly more formal as well, the episode, Hack Prine, was buried deep in the season in the hope that viewers would not notice, and this apparently worked. Despite dying a dusty death in this one, he would return to Dodge and confront Marshal Dillon four more times.

Hack Prine expires

All through the mid-fifties he would pop up, almost invariably as heavy, on shows such as Cheyenne, Broken Arrow, Zane Grey Theatre, Tombstone Territory, Colt .45 and many more. Some of these he wrote. There was hardly a TV Western he didn’t appear in.

His connection to Maverick became quite strong. From 1957 through 1960 he played the recurring character Big Mike McComb. Leo said, “I liked Jim Garner. I thought he was an honest guy. I would have liked to have gone further with that role, but they brought in Jack Kelly for a sidekick and Roger Moore as a cousin and made it a family affair.” Leo wrote four episodes of the show between 1960 and ’61, and appeared in five, and his contribution was recognized when he was invited, now in his 70s, to do a cameo in Warners’ entertaining Maverick with Mel Gibson and, of course, James Garner.


The mid-50s

In 1954 in Universal’s The Yellow Mountain Leo was knocked down no fewer than three times in the course of the movie by Lex Barker, a rather implausible likelihood.

The following year was a golden one for Leo-fans because not only did he appear in three Western TV shows, he also popped up in the excellent number of six feature Westerns. Six! Great.

First he was a fellow-thug of Lee Van Cleef trying to do the dirty on Randolph Scott in Columbia’s Ten Wanted Men (February), then he was Martin White, the nemesis of John Brown (Raymond Massey) in Allied Artists’ Seven Angry Men (March), and that was followed by two releases in May, Republic’s Santa Fe Passage, a Rod Cameron picture, in which he was the half-breed villain McLawery, and then he was one of the henchmen of gang boss Richard Boone in United Artists’ Zane Grey tale Robbers’ Roost, with George Montgomery.

Great badmen both

Then in September he was the sheriff in RKO’s Tennessee’s Partner, out to arrest Ronald Reagan, unfortunately verging dangerously on the tough good-guy, but it was a return to form in October, when he was back at United Artists in Man with the Gun, starring Robert Mitchum: the movie opens with the classic scene of Leo riding into town. A dog escapes the clutches of his owner, a small boy, and barks at the rider. Gordon shoots it. Ooo, that’s bad!

The mid-1950s were the very apogee of the Western movie and Leo Gordon sure played his part.

In 1956 there was a lot of TV but there were also three appearances in big-screen Westerns. In Universal’s Red Sundown, a Rory Calhoun oater released in March, Leo and his gang besiege a cabin with Rory and his pal James Millican in it because in a saloon gunfight the pair had killed Leo’s brother. Millican dies but Rory survives, and hides. Leo & Co depart, thinking both dead. Unusually, however, while we would expect Rory now to ride out on a revenge mission, to gun down Leo and his gang for what they have done, in fact Rory made a promise to the dying Millican that if he got out of this alive he would hang up his guns and get a steady job. So he goes off to Durango and does exactly that, and we never see Leo & Co again. Oh well.

Snarling badman in Red Sundown

United Artists’ Johnny Concho, which came out in July, was a Frank Sinatra Western and therefore pretty bad. Leo was a heavy, billed low down the cast list.

In Columbia’s much better 7th Cavalry, released in December, a captain (Randolph Scott again) recruits the dregs of the army, Dirty-Dozen style, to go on a dangerous mission to recover the body of Custer at Little Bighorn, and guess who is one of the reprobate troopers to go along? Yup, Leo.

Leo was also in RKO’s Jacques Tourneur-directed Great Day in the Morning that year, a Robert Stack picture with Virginia Mayo and Ruth Roman, if you consider that a Western. Some do. It’s Westernish.

So that was another good year.

Strength to strength

1957 saw him in a Scott Brady picture, Fox’s The Restless Breed. Brady has to face off against Leo, not a heart-warming prospect. Actually, the leader of the badmen is Jim Davis but he only appears at the very end to get shot. It’s Leo who is Mr. Mayhem for most of the movie. Very satisfactory.

Then came another George Montgomery Western, Warners’ Black Patch (September), a picture in which he was fourth in the cast list and which he also wrote, as mentioned above. The film, directed by Allen Miner, has tension, interesting aspects of plot and is visually classy. Leo is suspected of bank robbery (so was well cast) and his friend the marshal (Montgomery) is obliged to arrest him, but crooked saloon owner (was there any other kind?) Sebastian Cabot helps Leo escape and then kills him, the swine. It’s interesting that when he got to write the script, Leo played a sympathetic character!

In his own Black Patch
The Joel McCrea Western The Tall Stranger was released by Allied Artists in November. Leo is the ranch foreman and he is all decked out in black with slick holster, so obviously we think he is a gunslinger but surprisingly he turns out to be a goody. He looks a bit puzzled being nice. Not quite sure what to do. Goody wasn't Leo's thing.

By now, any Westernista worth his (or her, natch) salt would by now, as the mid-50s gave way to the late-50s know Leo Gordon as one of the best and most prolific of Western badmen.

And the late 50s were no worse, I can assure you.

The late 50s

Three more feature Westerns followed in 1958, Quantrill’s Raiders in April, Apache Territory in September and Ride a Crooked Trail in November.

In Allied Artists’ Quantrill’s Raiders, Leo, third billed, joined the long list of actors who have impersonated Confederate guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill. He doesn’t get much to say in the movie, just grunt and shoot people, but he does it with aplomb. And Leo Gordon sure did aplomb.

Leo as Quantrill

Columbia’s Apache Territory was back with Rory Calhoun. It was a filming of Louis L’Amour’s novel Last Stand at Papago Wells and in it Rory leads a group of unreliable men besieged by Apaches. Leo is a disgruntled demoted cavalry sergeant. Excellent.

And Universal’s Ride a Crooked Trail was Leo’s first Western with Audie Murphy. Sadly, Gordon has a very short part as the trail boss, not a heavy. He only appears long enough for you to say Oh good, Leo Gordon, then he’s gone. Sigh. What a waste.

The last year of the golden decade of the Western saw Leo in two feature oaters, United Artists’ Escort West, Victor Mature’s last Western, in January and Paramount’s The Jayhawkers!, with Jeff Chandler and Fess Parker, in October.

Escort West, which Leo co-wrote, was made by John Wayne’s Batjac company, and Duke brought to the project the best ever Army unit you could wish for: Troopers Leo Gordon, Harry Carey Jr and Ken Curtis were commanded by Corporal Slim Pickens and Lt. Noah Beery Jr. Beat that. Only Ben Johnson was missing – he was busy being a Captain in UA’s Fort Bowie - though Dobe’s character was called Travis in a sort of homage-cum-in-joke.

Leo Gordon gets the drop on Vic. Well, Leo wrote it so he could do what he wanted.

The Jayhawkers! wasn’t too good as a Western really (Westerns with exclamation points in the title rarely are). Evil but charismatic Chandler is a megalomaniac backwoods Napoleon. Leo is a member of his disreputable entourage whom Fess Parker saves from being lynched. But Leo breaks a cardinal rule by bringing Fess to Chandler’s hideout. And rule-breaking is not permitted. So Leo pays the ultimate price. I wonder how many times he died on screen?

Enter the 60s

The 1960s were not the high-water-mark of the Western genre but there were still some good oaters going around and Leo was in a few – a few, I say, not as many as in the 50s.

There was only one in 1960 (unless you count Valley of the Redwoods a Western), when he played Link Roy, the principal henchman of ruthless town boss Barton MacLane in United Artists’ Noose for a Gunman (soon to be remade by Audie as The Quick Gun). Leo has to be beaten up by Jim Davis this time.

Poor Leo loses again

Next up was one of Leo’s famous roles when he was one of the many to go down that mudslide in McLintock! (1963). You’ll probably remember him uttering the famous line "Somebody oughta belt you but I won't. I won't? The hell I won't!" (Belts Duke).

With Duke again, this time in McLintock!

The Bounty Killer in 1965 was something of a curiosity. It featured numerous superannuated cowboy stars: Richard Arlen (54 Westerns, 1926 – 75) plays the father of the love-interest girl. The eternal sidekick Fuzzy Knight (128 Westerns, 1932 – 67) is Dan Duryea’s pal, the sea cap’n Luther. Johnny Mack Brown (131 Westerns, 1930 - 65) is the sheriff and Buster Crabbe (55 Westerns 1933 to 65) is there too. Most amazing of all, GM ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson is in it, veteran of what many people regard as the first ever Western movie, The Great Train Robbery of 1903. The Bounty Killer was the last of 328 Western appearances by Anderson and his presence alone makes the movie of interest. Leo co-wrote it with Ruth Alexander, the producer's wife, though did not appear in it (probably too young). Producer Alex Gordon said, “Leo wanted to play the Rod Cameron role, but we explained we needed Rod for the foreign co-financing and I preferred Buster Crabbe in the villain’s part. He understood. Leo was a nice guy but slightly intimidating in size and appearance.”

An elderly Broncho Billy

A classic Leo role came in Paramount’s The Night of the Grizzly in 1966. He had famously slugged it out several times with Clint Walker on Cheyenne (their fight in the episode Vengeance Is Mine is legendary).  Now he got to do it on the big screen. Clint is a farmer who suffers the attacks of a giant bear. A bounty is put on the bear’s head and Leo is the bounty hunter who comes north to kill the beast and claim the reward. He is a former foe of Clint’s down in Utah and so we are meant to think Leo is as keen to get Clint as the grizzly. At last Leo has two worthy adversaries to grapple with, Clint (6 foot 6 inches with a 48” chest) and the grizzly bear (similar dimensions). Great stuff. Somehow, Leo managed to make his character as sympathetic as he was frightening, and in his final scene he gives his life to save Clint’s son.

Leo v Clint
(photo Getty Images)

Two more 60s Westerns followed, the AC Lyles ‘geezer Westerns’ Hostile Guns in 1967, and in ’68 Buckskin. Hostile Guns, directed by good old RG Springsteen, was led by George Montgomery as a tough lawman, and he still had it, and Leo is the chief bad guy, amusingly called Pleasant. The scene where Tab Hunter goes into his cell and beats him up in a fistfight is patently absurd. In your dreams, Tab. Buckskin had a minute budget but a mega-cast. It was the last of these Lyles geezer pictures. Leo is a henchman of ruthless cattle baron Wendell Corey, who is opposed by brave Marshal Barry Sullivan. These pictures were nostalgia-fests, really, but are enjoyable to Western fans glad of a chance to see their heroes again – especially Leo Gordon. He was still only in his mid-forties, after all.

Leo v George

He only appeared in one feature Western in the 1970s, the perfectly dreadful My Name is Nobody (Il mio Nome è Nessuno) in 1973 with Italian star Terence Hill and a frankly past-it Henry Fonda, 68, wandering about the set as if wondering what he was doing there. It was puerile trash. Sad.

The TV Western was also in decline but Leo continued to appear in episodes through the 60s and into the 70s. Maverick, of course, at the start of the 60s, as mentioned above, but also Tombstone Territory, Tales of Wells Fargo, Bat Masterson, Laramie, The Deputy, Have Gun – Will Travel, in fact pretty well any show you care to name. In the 70s he was in The Virginian, Alias Smith & Jones, Hec Ramsey, Gunsmoke, Barbary Coast and Little House on the Prairie. He was still working.

And even in the 80s he was doing episodes of non-Westerns, things like The Winds of War, Fame, and Magnum PI.

1980s Leo - tougher than ever

His Western swansong came in 1994 when he was a poker player on that riverboat (billed once again as Leo V Gordon) in the amusing Maverick - a fitting tribute to have him there – and his final role was as Wyatt Earp in a 1994 episode of the television series The Young Indiana Jones. He was recognized for his contribution to our noble genre with a Golden Boot Award in 1997. Ah, Leo, we miss you. He died of “respiratory failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” aged 78 in LA on December 26, 2000.

Leo in 1993
(Alamy photo)

He said, “Westerns are fundamental . . . the morality play. There's a good guy and a bad guy. You know which is which.” With Leo, we sure did.

He also said of being a heavy, “You get more recognition. After all, I look like a heavy. I'm 6' 2", 200 pounds. Got a craggy-ass face.”

He told a nice story: “I was walking down the street in Morocco when a little kid steps out of the alley and looks at me. He runs a few feet ahead of me--turns around and looks again--he puts his hands down like he's drawing two pistols. He goes, "Bip, bip, bip!' Y'know? Like he's shooting. You figure, here you are, a world away from anything you're familiar with, and some little kid in an alley in Morocco recognizes you?”

Also great in non-Western roles, as Dillinger in Baby Face Nelson (with Rooney as Baby Face)

...and with fellow heavy Neville in Cell Block 11

Another Western heavy, George Keymas, said of him, “I worked with Leo several times. We were in Santa Fe Passage and the remake of Beau Geste then we did another TV show together. He was a gentleman all the time and a hell of an actor. I don’t think people really realize the amount of talent this man had. I say that because he was used primarily as a bad guy all the time, but I remember a film he made where he played a very sensitive kind of character. He was excellent.”

One thing we can all say. When we start a Western and the intro credits roll, listing the cast, if we see the name LEO GORDON, we all say, “Oh, good!”